Published Sep 07, 2017For two hours and 15 minutes, IT is a nonstop cavalcade of terrifying monsters leaping out from the dark and into the lives of our protagonists. It's the most continuous assault of the strangest and creepiest demons I've seen in a good while, interspersed by honest and powerful scenes of childhood bonding in which we get to know our young heroes.
Not to say that they fit the hero mould perfectly — this band of losers smoke, swear, tell crude jokes, get awkward crushes and love each other unconditionally. It's an odd juxtaposition, but one that worked in Stephen King's original novel and works here thanks to the film's breakneck pacing, inventive effects and performances by an immensely talented group of young actors.
Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stan (Wyatt Oleff), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Mike (Chosen Jacobs) are all outcasts in their small town of Derry, Maine. Richie's a four-eyed motormouth, Eddie is a hypochondriac with an overbearing mother, Stan is Jewish, Beverly bears an unjust bad reputation and an abusive father, Ben is overweight and bookish, Mike is black and homeschooled and Bill, their de-facto leader, has a bad stutter — not to mention that something terrible happened to his little brother Georgie in a sewer one year ago.
Children in Derry are going missing at an alarming rate, and the members of this "Losers Club" are beginning to see terrifying apparitions — lepers, burned hands, a woman with a distorted head (my personal favourite), blood gushing out of drains and a strange, haunting clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). There are a lot of monsters, and a lot of scares. Yes, there are a few cheap jump scares, but the excellent attention to detail and the relation these monsters have to the deep emotional fears of our protagonists makes them legitimately terrifying, instead of just overwhelming.
Much was made of the design of this new Pennywise when it was initially revealed, and although Skarsgård's performance bears many resemblances to Heath Ledger's unhinged Joker from The Dark Knight, he holds his face in a pouting glower that's deeply unsettling, and the choice to give him glowing red eyes and a mouthful of razor teeth is a great one. There's a frantic physicality to the character, who tumbles, flips and contorts himself about as he pursues the kids, a surreal and awful parody of an acrobatic clown.
Overall, the film stays true to the book, except for how It appears to the children (a necessity, as most of the original apparitions were werewolves and mummies, monsters that kids in the 1950s would find scary, but that our current crop of kids set in the 1980s — and modern audiences — would not), but a few changes, albeit small, don't work nearly as well. The film's denouement places Beverly in a damsel in distress role, and while it's brief and she soon regains her agency, it's a bit of a disappointment considering how strong and independent the character is in both the original book and the rest of the new film. Although she is the subject of an awkward but sweet love triangle between Bill and Ben, in no way is she ever reduced to an object of preteen male lust, and her male friends respect and genuinely care for her.
The character of Mike also gets a more abridged backstory, a tragic one that borders on melodrama. As Mike joins the Losers last, this may have been an attempt to give him enough characterization within the time limits of the film. One hopes that his character is further fleshed out in the sequel, where we'll return to our heroes 27 years later.
A review of IT would be incomplete without mentioning the great performances from this group of young actors. It's always refreshing when filmmakers let preteens act as normal preteens do, without any preciousness or precociousness. All the kids (especially Richie, a much different, but equally great, role for Finn Wolfhard than the sensitive dreamer he played in Stranger Things) scream, swear like truckers, cry, make disgustingly hilarious sexual jokes, and have each other's backs, always. They falter, and they're not always right or courageous, but the amount of strength they muster in the face of adversity is touching and real.
It's not just IT the kids are afraid of; the adults in their lives are frequently monsters, too, and they face constant threats of assault by sadistic neighbourhood bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). Although we know that more evil is just around the corner, we're left with a sense that, together, these kids may grow into adults that can defeat IT for good.